Is the world turning Japanese? Even as Japan's domestic economy slips into recession and its politicians dither endlessly, the country's overseas influence is reaching new heights. Limited by a postwar constitution from developing military power, Japan's international clout relies on soft power, the term coined by Harvard professor Joseph S. Nye in 1990 to describe how countries "get what [they] want through attraction rather than coercion." Today, a generation of idealistic Japanese is attempting to sway the world through cultural, social and economic means. Japan doesn't tend to trumpet its efforts — understandable given the nation's imperial past and historic disregard for national boundaries...
Japan's charm offensive is taking shape on several fronts. Cash-flush Japanese banks, which have only just emerged from their own decade-long debt crisis, are infusing money into distressed companies such as Morgan Stanley. Japan Inc. is going on another of its famous investment sprees abroad, opening factories and representative offices across Africa and Asia. In October, the country's central bank even offered part of its nearly $1 trillion in reserves to financially strapped nations like Iceland. In November, Japan also expressed willingness to lend up to $100 billion to the International Monetary Fund. But it isn't just money that's being spread around. "Because Japan's financial system is the least tainted at the moment," says Japanese parliamentarian Kotaro Tamura, "we have the opportunity to help save the world and spread a message of social responsibility..."
It's also interesting how globalization of Japanese culture is paying dividends via "manga diplomacy." For those who think Mickey Mouse is too much of a bourgeois capitalist stooge, there are alternatives. Indeed, Japanese politicians are keen on leveraging this global recognition:
If many Japanese-language students had their druthers, they'd probably want a pair of cool cats to helm their classes. In May, Japan designated Hello Kitty as a tourism ambassador, two months after Doraemon, the aqua-hued robot feline, was named the nation's first cartoon envoy. The designation of these two cat representatives symbolizes just how much Japan's overseas reputation is tied to pop culture. That's a connection that surely pleases Japan's new Prime Minister Taro Aso. The 68-year-old premier, who is a self-confessed manga addict, has called for Japan to pursue what he calls "comic-book diplomacy." (Last year, when he was serving as Japan's Foreign Minister, Aso counted among his accomplishments inaugurating an International Manga Award that honors foreign artists.) Aso's own internationalism is rooted in personal experience, a relative rarity among Japanese politicians. In addition to studying at Stanford University and the London School of Economics, he spent time in Sierra Leone and Brazil, where he ran family mining businesses. A vocal advocate of Japan's foreign-aid efforts, Aso calls assistance for developing countries "a respectable means to export Japanese culture [and] an important means to disseminate Japanese values."
Although he has barely had time to articulate his leadership priorities, Aso appears committed to burnishing Japan's global influence. Over the past decade, the nation's foreign-aid budget has nosedived. In the early 1990s, flush with cash from its long boom, Japan was the world's largest donor. Now, it's fifth. Aso might reverse the trend. In August, Japan's Foreign Ministry requested a 13.6% increase in next year's foreign-aid budget. In October, Aso made headlines when he signed off on a record $4.5 billion loan to India. That commitment followed on the heels of Japan's promise in May to double the amount of aid it doles out to Africa by 2012. With China's footprint in Africa growing ever larger, Japan has opened three new embassies on the continent...
Something that interests me in particular is talk of the current charm offensive setting the stage for attracting migrants to Japan. Given the country's famously woeful demographics and not-so-heroic ways of coping with them, is it finally preparing the way for the inevitable influx of migrants? Reluctance to systematically address migration has been characteristic of Japan for the longest time. In TIME's reading of events, making the rest of the world comfortable with Japanese culture is paving the way for making Japan a migration destination of the future. We'll see:
Other factors have forced the nation to look anew at its role in the world. A crucial consideration is the nation's dwindling birth rate. Japan is running out of workers. To fill its factories and care for a graying population, the Asian nation will need to import ever greater numbers of laborers from abroad. What better way to lure skilled immigrants to Japan — ones who might be just as interested in moving to the U.S. or Australia — than piquing their interest in all things Japanese?
In the same way, unless Japan relaxes its rigid immigration policies, cultivating foreign Japanophiles will be a waste of time. Indeed, in moving beyond Japan's insular past, Prime Minister Aso might do well to take inspiration from a cuddly cat. Hello Kitty, it turns out, may not be ethnically Japanese. Her surname is not Suzuki or Sato but White. Her parents are named George and Mary. Yet the mouthless feline has prospered as one of Japan's most successful exports, a fitting symbol of an open Japan. Arigato Kitty, hello world.